A commenter on Facebook made a statement which is often heard in the USA:
“A Dutch lady said they have so few hurt because drivers are guilty unless they can prove they weren’t.”
Well, this doesn’t quite amount to fake news as such. I don’t expect that there was any intention to deceive, but it is hearsay.
The actual situation with liability in the Netherlands is more complicated, as described in the flow chart below, from a Bicycle Dutch blog post — which cites the Dutch traffic law, in case you would like to take your exploration of the topic further. You may click on the image to enlarge it.
Dutch strict liability flow chart
I’m simplifying somewhat, but Dutch strict liability works much like no-fault auto insurance in the USA, and applies only to compensation for injuries, not to penalties.
Roundabout design in the Netherlands has seen a long process of trial and error. A design used until bicyclists complained strongly enough about it placed the bikeway away from the circular roadway, but cyclists were required to yield. Here is an explanation of Dutch roundabout design developments.
This is a rather large roundabout at the intersection of major highways, and with moderate deflection on entry or exit. Looking here in Google Maps, it’s clear that the highway in the background at the left is a bypass around the city of s’Hertogenbosch — though not a limited-access highway like the one which appears in the distant background in the video.
This roundabout was constructed in connection with the new bypass road around the city. Google Street View from 2009 shows the roundabout under construction. A sidelight on this observation is that Dutch practice does consider motor traffic. Two of the legs of the intersection at the roundabout are new roads being constructed at the same time.
I’ve been told by a knowledgeable person that the bikeways on either side of the highways are supposed to be one-way, but the only destinations along these bikeways are at intersections — reducing the temptation to ride opposite traffic.
The design requires a lot of space because the circular bikeway is much larger than the circular roadway. The roundabout is outside a city, but nonetheless, it appears that several houses had to be demolished or moved to make way for this roundabout.
The installation here places separate bikeways (red asphalt) and walkways (paver blocks) outside the circular roadway. Bicycle traffic shown in the video is light. If bicycle traffic were heavy, it would result in congestion of motor traffic because motorists yielding to cyclists could not enter or exit the roundabout. Having a path (or for that matter, crosswalks) around the outside of a roundabout obviates the main advantage of the roundabout, that traffic can keep moving. Only grade separation would avoid this for both bicyclists and pedestrians. Motor vehicles and bicycles sharing the roadway would avoid the bicyclists’ causing congestion, but would not be as attractive for bicyclists lacking in skill and confidence.
If you look at the video full-screen, you can see a number of details which are not evident in the small window on this page. I am most interested in the interactions and negotiations for right of way, which are the central issue with mobility and safety in any intersection which is not traffic-signal controlled.
Expectation in the Netherlands is that motorists will yield wherever they see shark-tooth markings. The path around the outside of the roundabout is brought out to the entry and exit roads at a right angle and far enough outside the roundabout so that motorists will be able to see approaching bicyclists. Ohio resident Patricia Kovacs has investigated roundabouts in that state and demonstrated that motorists don’t even yield to pedestrians. She has posted some comments about roundabouts on this blog and in the Facebook thread mentioned earlier.
Some cyclists in the s’Hertogenbosch video are shown looking to their right as they pass paths coming in from their right, for example at 0:55 and 2:25, but many are shown not turning their heads to look for conflicting motor traffic. That is to say, they are putting their complete faith and trust in motorists to yield to them, which is a comment on Dutch expectations for motorist conduct. There is an especially stunning example of this at 1:59, where a cyclist powers through an intersection as motorists approach from the left, inside the roundabout, and the right, entering it. However, at 6:07, a motorist stops abruptly at an exit to the roundabout as a fast cyclist comes around from the right.
One cyclist leaves the roundabout on the left side, opposite the intended direction, at 1:38 in the video. Another is riding around the roundabout clockwise at 2:40 and apparently while talking on a mobile phone.
At 2:34, a motorist is shown slowing to yield to a cyclist who turns right rather than to cross the exit of the roundabout. With no lane changing or negotiation betwen motorists and cyclists, the motorist did not have a way to know which way the cyclist would go.
Cyclists carry various objects in their hands or on the handlebars. At 6:40, a cyclist is carrying something which looks like a hockey stick.
At 7:18 a young woman has a disabled bicycle and is walking.
Now let’s look at some other Dutch roundabouts.
A roundabout inside s’Hertogenbosch, here, has the bikeway immediately adjacent to the circular roadway, so that cyclists are hidden directly behind — not next to — exiting vehicles.
Here’s the video of the roundabout. The video shows motorists required to yield to cyclists in spite of this right-hook threat.Are the cycling facilities safe, as claimed? Or if safety is achieved here, is it maybe achieved in another way? You decide.
The description of the video indicates that this roundabout is rather new. Its design appears to be restricted by the small available space at an urban intersection.
Some notable interactions:
At 0:20, a car brakes rather abruptly. Shortly thereafter, a motor scooter passes through the roundabout on the roadway.
At 0:30 and again at 0:53, a car blocks the bikeway to allow a pedestrian to cross in a crosswalk which is just outside the bikeway.
Most bicyclists are not paying any attention to the traffic in the roundabout, At 0:45, a bicyclist is looking down at a cell phone, but at 0:50, 1:10, 1:29, 1:53, 2:03 and 2:10, and a few additional times, bicyclists perform a shoulder check. The one at 2:03 does this while also carrying a cell phone in one hand.
At 1:49 and again at 2:20, there is a motorcycle in the bikeway, waiting along with bicyclists to enter the roundabout, and there is a bicyclist standing over his bicycle, facing opposite the direction of traffic. It appears that he is having a conversation with the motorcyclist and a couple of pedestrians. They are blocking the crosswalk.
At 2:49, a motorist stops in the roundabout to yield to a bicyclist who does not cross, but instead turns right. The bicyclist gives a right-turn signal, but too late for the motorist to react, and in any case, a prudent motorist would not risk that the bicyclist would go straight even though signaling. The design of the roundabout does not make the bicyclist’s intentions obvious.
At 2:58, a bus barely outpaces a bicyclist through the roundabout. The bicyclist turns right, but the bus driver has no way to know that he will. The bus driver is either very highly skilled at judging the bicyclist’s speed, or reckless. The bicyclist would have had to yield to the bus if going slightly faster and continuing around the roundabout.
Starting at 3:00, several bicyclists enter traveling the wrong way on the bikeway or sidewalk. Some turn right but others pass close to a doorway which a pedestrian has just exited, and a blind corner, and cross from right to left in the crosswalk or bikeway. An articulated bus enters the roundabout and these bicyclists pass behind it. Other bicyclists traveling counterclockwise around the roundabout will have to yield to the long bus, though this occurs outside the field of view of the video.
At 3:45, bicyclists share the bikeway around the roundabout with a skateboarder and motor-scooter rider.
Almost all the bicyclists are pedaling about 40 rpm. At thsi cadence, it is possible to produce enough power to ride only slowly, and it is not possible ot accelerate smartly.
In the so-called “shared space” roundabout in Drachten, cyclists share space with pedestrians. The meaning of the term “shared space” is very different here from its more usual meaning, that motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians all operate in the same space. In the Drachten roundabout, bicyclists and pedestrians share space — as on shared-use paths in the USA — but are strictly separated from motor traffic except in crossings, as in the other Dutch roundabouts. The space around the margins of the Drachten roundabout also serves as a pedestrian plaza.
I’m poking around in YouTube and Google maps. Here’s a roundabout in YouTube — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXUF97p8fXQI — location not given, as is usual in such promotions, but I found it in Google Maps by searching on the name of one of the businesses nearby: http://goo.gl/maps/Jd2ED. A special feature made the roundabout practical: the buildings are set far back at a 45-degree angle on each corner. The circular bikeway around the outside makes it possible for motorists to see cyclists in order to yield (though motorists don’t always, as the video shows) and greatly adds to space requirements, which already are large for a roundabout. There wouldn’t be room for such a roundabout at many urban intersections.
Another roundabout in Amsterdam is of the spiraling Turbo Roundabout design, with a path close around the outside and scary sight lines which place a cyclist too far to the right to be in view of a motorist exiting the roundabout: http://goo.gl/maps/fQybJ and street view, http://goo.gl/maps/LU1ww . Traffic signals have been placed at the exits to mitigate these conflicts. This is a triple roundabout with a tramway going around the inside, also requiring traffic signals.
The left and center roundabouts in this overhead view, http://goo.gl/maps/Q3jIy also are of the bikeway-around-the-outside type: but the rightmost roundabout, in a wooded area, is of the newer type.
Dutch roundabouts are of several types for motor traffic, but the major difference for bicyclists is whether they travel around the outside of the roundabout, or there are grade separations. There are no examples like the small modern roundabouts and neighborhood traffic circles in the USA, where bicyclists share the roadway with motor vehicles.
Roundabouts are expensive and take up a lot of space. Many of the promotions we are seeing of Dutch facilities ignore these limitations and the compromises they exact and/or celebrate the newest and most impressive examples.
About the video here by Mikael Colville of copenhagenize.com:
Mikael Colville’s talk in the video is introduced by a video clip of a rather sorry infrastructure situation, with a crowd of bicyclists slowly making their way forward, cramped in a narrow passage to the right of an opaque barrier, while a line of cars turning right must yield to the cyclists after turning past the barrier. To me, this choice of a clip conveys the message “look, we are morally superior, motorist, we’re going to make it hard for you: you have to yield to us.” It doesn’t say anything about making bicycling more convenient, or anything but a nuisance to people who might think of switching from motoring. Or that whoever chose this location had any other sense about infrastructure — certainly none about sight line hazards.
And the music — the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil! Now there’s an odd choice!
Similarly, at the end, there is an overhead drone shot of a bridge which has recently been restriped from four to two lanes of motor traffic, to add street level bike lanes next to already existing bikeways behind curbs. The implication is that bicyclists are winning by taking space away from motorists, and that space is to struggle over, not to share. In this case, on a bridge, I’d agree that bike lanes are suitable, but are four needed? What happens where they turn off at the end of the bridge while motor vehicles can go straight? We don’t see. Who knows?
The talk is all about marketing. The core of his message is that guilt-tripping people about environmentalism doesn’t work, and we must use marketing to make bicycling look attractive. Two products which Colville discusses for purposes of comparison, sewing machines and vacuum cleaners, are both highly useful labor-saving devices which quickly became popular for that reason, but he doesn’t mention that. He does praise improvements which made them more compact and useful in the home, but mostly, he praises the decorations on sewing machines which made them more attractive to homemakers.
My mother owned a Singer treadle sewing machine, and indeed it was a beautiful product — to some degree because of the flower stencils but also because of its elegant product design, with a table to hold supplies and attachments, and into which the machine could be folded down to make the table useful when the machine wasn’t in use. Treadle power was perfect for the pre-electrical era, and the wheel on the right end of the machine could start, slow or stop it with precision. Not to speak of my mother’s machine’s being several decades old and still working perfectly.
My mother also owned a 1950-ish Kenmore (Sears brand, made by Electrolux) vacuum cleaner, and it was an esthetic horror, shaped like an airplane fuselage, painted dull gray and very loud. She made much more use of the vacuum cleaner than of the sewing machine.
Colville says that we must market bicycling like these products. He deprecates “the 1%” of people who will wear fancy cycling clothing” — guilt by association with political class struggle, divisive, and also a reference to the categorization which Roger Geller made up, pulling the numbers out of his head, only to be followed up by a home-town study which found that his numbers were exactly right (surprise!).
Colville says that people are conservative and don’t want to stand out. But, tattoos peek out from under his plain white T shirt.
I don’t think that bicycling can be sold by marketing alone. It must be practical and useful like a sewing machine or vacuum cleaner, or people won’t use it for daily transportation. Though some people like to show off with Spandex and carbon fiber bikes, others wear street clothes and ride beater bikes. Some do both. Should instructors even care? We make bicycling more practical for any cyclists by helping them to do it well — and offering informed opinions on what works, or not, in bicycle planning and infrastructure.
I’ve prepared a full translation of the important paper by Dr. Volker Briese of the University of Paderborn in Germany about the history of German bikeways from 1897 through the start of World War II. This has previously been available only in German, or in a highly condensed version in English in the narrowly distributed Proceedings of the 1993 International Cycle History Conference. You may read the English translation here, and also find your way to the other versions as well if they are what you would prefer.
A reader pointed me to a news story on the politiken.dk blog about the Copenhagen/Albertslund “bicycle superhighway” which is getting attention and publicity. The reader’s comments on my previous post read:
Yeah, its kind of joke, but to be fair they are not called superhighways in Danish but Super bicycle tracks, and even then most agree that they are not really that super. There is a video of the entire route here if you scroll down a bit:
The two next ones which will open are another story though, as they mostly have their own right of way, and use viaducts or bridges to cross streets.
So, better things may be on their way, but…I ran the article through the Google translator, and it appears in the link below in (sort of) English. The page includes the sped-up video of the entire route.
Here’s the video — warning, Shell diesel fuel ad at start, and you can only stop the video when you click on it, see the ad again and click on it to open a bigger ad! This workaround was needed to make the video visible on this page.
The one unifying factor of this route is an orange line painted lengthwise to identify it. The first part of the route is relatively tame. Barriers, unprotected intersections and other hazards pile up near the end.
Some representative quotes (I’ve translated from Googlish to English, thanks to an online dictionary and my knowledge of the neighbor language, German.):
From the article:
“I did not expect that I just had to detour on ordinary roads in residential neighborhoods. I did not see much of the green wave that is supposed to be in town. I do not think you can call it a super bike path,” the [politiken dk test rider] concluded.
From comments on the article:
– The section of tunnel under Motorring 3 is dark and miserably lighted. There are many riding schools (which, incidentally, should be forced to close and move out into a rural area!). The tunnel is usually filled with horse s***, and because you can not see in these tunnels due to poor lighting, you can only hope that you do not ride through any of it.
– In the westbound direction, at the pitch-dark tunnels, you have to negotiate two sets of barriers. The point of these, other than to impede traffic, I do not know. But when you have to use all your mental energy to get through these, they constitute more of a hazard than a safety precaution.
I have commuted between Roskilde and the northwest part of Copenhagen 2-3 times a week on a recumbent trike with an electric assist motor for 6 months (http://ing.dk/blogs/pedalbilen). When I used the “super path” the trip was about 3 km and 15 minutes longer. Especially the part of the route in Albertslund is very indirect and inconvenient. There are detours, barriers and ramps in most places, and it will for example not be possible to ride in a velomobile, as far as I can judge. The new route is comfortable and free of exhaust, but as commuter route it gets a failing grade compared with Roskildevej [a parallel, 4-lane divided but not limited-access highway with one-way sidepaths].
– I didn’t see anything which shows that cyclists have priority over the other traffic. Unfortunately, the only thing new that I see is approximately 100 meters of new asphalt in two places near Rødovre, so that it is easy going. There are simply no real improvements for cyclists in relation to other road users! You can still find barriers, sharp turns, bumps and traffic lights. Why is there no new cycle path, e.g. along the western forest road, so you do not have to drive through neighborhoods with pedestrians and children playing? Why are barriers not turned 90 degrees, so users of the route have right of way?
Even if there were brand new asphalt on the entire route it would never merit the title “super”. Only when a route enables more or less continuous travel at high average speed (which motorists know from motorways) does it, in my opinion, deserve the massive marketing it is currently getting.
…Bus passengers cross the bikeway. It seems quite unreasonable that there are no islands at bus stops where passengers have to wait when they get on and off. Thus cyclists must stop, and so, so much for the “super bike path”.
Note from John Allen: Ian Cooper originally wrote the following essay as a counter-argument against the idea that there has never been a European bike culture, based on observations that did not extend beyond typical urban cycling on heavy, black bicycles.
I cycled throughout Europe in 1984 and 1985. I spent a year and a half there and covered 10,000 miles. I cycled through 13 countries, often together with locals.
Ian Cooper with the massive black 'family bike' he borrowed
There were three bicycling cultures in Europe at that time – as there have always been since at least WW2. There’s the culture of the family bike, there’s the culture of the hobby bike, and there’s the commuter bike culture. The family bike crowd kept their dad’s and mom’s bike in the basement – often it was heavy, old, cranky and rusty. It worked – barely, but it got them out doing errands every week or so when the family car wasn’t available. The ‘bike as a hobby’ culture used mid- to high-end bikes for weekend outings and tours. Then there was the commuter, and he needed an everyday bike that could go faster and had more gears than the family bike because he was on it every day for a good amount of time – so he chose the mid-range racing bikes too.
I have been a cyclist for 40 years – since I was 8 [in 1971, more or less]. In 1979 or 1980 I started commuting to work on a mid-range Peugeot road bike. This was in England. I was not a bicycle enthusiast – I was just a commuter, and as a commuter I needed a bike that was light, fast and maneuverable, and one that could get up hills. I did that for 4 years, 250 days a year, rain or snow.
My European trip started as a walking tour to Istanbul. In Holland I pulled a muscle in my foot and couldn’t go on. I met a family on the border between Holland and Germany and they loaned me a bike – a massive black thing (I still have a picture of it) and the family and I went for a ride – at 4mph through the Dutch countryside. Even though it was slow, it showed I could continue my journey because my foot could pedal without pain.
Now, I spent time with about 15 families during my tour. Most of them were like this one – they owned an old cranky ‘family’ bike but their main transportation was their car. I stayed with three families who owned at least one mid-range or high-end bike. They all owned a car too, but they were the ‘hobbyists’. I didn’t stay with any bike commuters that I remember – one may have been.
I set out for Cologne and sought out a bike shop. I asked the owner for a good touring bike for under $300. He steered me to a Motobecane Super Mirage (I still have a few pictures of it). Then I set off to Istanbul.
Ian Cooper in Kozani (Macedonia) with the Motobécane
On my way (and on my way from Istanbul to Granada, and back to England again) I met very many cyclists, some on day trips, some foreigners like me on tours. But the local cyclists I met were much the same as the ones we see today on bike trails, some vacationing commuters with racers and some hobbyists with touring bikes (I don’t remember many mountain bikes back then – some Americans and Australians used them). I rarely saw the heavy bikes on the tour routes because they were used by families pretty much purely for shopping. When I did see them they were in the towns.
If you didn’t tour by bike you wouldn’t see many quality bikes, because their owners spent little time in the cities. If you did tour, I can’t imagine how you could miss all the local tourists and commuters with their middle and high-end Motobécanes, Peugeots, Raleighs, etc. The Dutch family I first met certainly did not have a mid-range or high-end bike in the house, and if I had turned around and gone home at that point, I might be agreeing about the lack of a bike culture in Europe in the 1980s. But I went on and found the bike culture. It’s not in the towns and it’s certainly not in most European homes. But it is in evidence along the tour routes and I know it DOES influence the transportation scene. The problem is, it doesn’t influence it as much as the family bike culture, which is much the same as it is here – scared of cars and wants bike lanes. This is essentially, I believe, because it is not really a bike culture – it’s a car culture in which the car is often stranded at the main breadwinner’s work, so the rest of the family get stuck having to use the family bike. It’s obvious who these people are in Europe – they all ride those heavy and nasty Dutch bikes. But here [in the USA], the family bike, the hobby bike and the commuter bike all look pretty similar, which makes it hard to sort the family bike folks (who aren’t really cyclists) from the true bike culture.
Anyway, I fear I’ve started rambling, so I’ll shut up and just post my thoughts. Hopefully they make sense to someone besides me.
A community bike sharing program is not about the bike: it’s about overcoming the shortcomings of the mass transportation system and making it better serve the users without increasing congestion. The problem with mass transit is that unless you are very lucky, it doesn’t quite serve your needs. The inefficiencies in waiting for trains or buses, waiting for transfers, and not going exactly where you want to go add up. In many cases, you get very frustrated just attempting the trip. A community bike system alleviates that by giving you an almost instant way to cut the delays and straighten routes to go from place to place without the intra-system delays. You go to a bike station near your origin, swipe your pass, and take the associated bike. When you reach your destination, you click the bike into a stand and are done with it. The grid is dense, so that these stations should be no more than 1000 feet from the origin and destination (I think that Vélib stations are spaced no more than 300 meters [about 1000 feet] apart).
In Paris, it is rare to see an unattended Vélib away from a bike station; the stations provide more convenient and secure parking than trying to manipulate the lock provided on the bike. Also, if you leave the bike unattended away from a station, you are responsible for it; once you secure it to its post at a station, you’re done with it. Note that Paris is only about 6 miles across and there is no extra charge for a Vélib for the first 30 minutes. So you should be able to complete almost any trip without charge. I’d be surprised if there is any measurable keeping of a Vélib over 30 minutes.
So, the intention of the program is mobility: the bike is only an instrument to promote that. The bike should be used when it makes sense to travel that way. You don’t need to plan. This idea would fail if the user were required to provide any bulky personal equipment (helmet, gloves, etc.) to use the bike.
A Spanish advocate of integrated cycling about conditions in Seville:
Disastrous: officially (according to the Seville City Council), some 120 km of segregated cycle lanes (most of them bidirectional) have been built at an official cost of 30 million Euros. (I say “officially” and “official” because I wouldn’t trust the Seville City Council to tell me the time of the day); there is also a bit of gossiping around (plausible enough, although there is no way to verify it) saying that a sizable part of that sum has been put not into the actual building of the structures, but into the political and social marketing campaign to sell the “Seville model of bicycle promotion”; one of the most visible elements of this marketing campaign has been this year’s Velo-City conference, held recently in Seville (http://www.velo-city2011.com/), conveniently, just a few weeks before the upcoming local elections.
The mantra of the Seville City Council’s campaign is something to the effect that “the cycling mode share in Seville has risen from 0.2% to 7% as a result of our commitment to segregated structures”. The numbers used change from time to time (essentially, they say different things to different publics at different moments: a couple years ago it got as high as 8%; now the most-repeated mark is 6.6%), with another often repeated line being that “Cycling in Seville has increased ten-fold in five years (as a result of our commitment blah blah blah…)”.
If you read Spanish, you can read an analysis debunking some aspects of the Seville City Council’s bull**** in this blog post by a member of the growing community of Spanish vehicular (or integrated, as we often like to call ourselves) cyclists: http://bicicletasciudadesviajes.blogspot.com/2011/02/cambio-modal-realidad-o-ficcion.html [Translation of blog name is “urban bicycle trips” and of the title of the post is “mode shift, reality or fiction”]
I commented on this issue in this comments thread in an English-language blog you may know, when the blog’s author repeated a bit mindlessly the official crap:
The outcome is thoroughly disastrous at several levels: not only are the segregated structures senseless and completely substandard (I am using “substandard” in the British sense here, not implying that I accept any standard at all); the city is a showcase of lost opportunities to improve real cycling conditions placed right next to the segregated crap; the local dominant cycling culture has become one of passive-aggressive cyclestrians riding on sidewalks even in trivial streets; the social status of the cyclists AND PEDESTRIANS has deteriorated (the level of conflict between pedestrians and cyclists is appalling; you can feel the increased hostility of car drivers if you ride on the roadway in a street with a cycle lane, although I have to admit, much less so than I expected); the number of cars has not decreased at all; Seville is indeed becoming an example for other clueless cities to imitate; the segregated chaos is prompting a host of Kafkaeske local ordinances to regulate the behavior of the cyclestrians… but on the other hand, the number of cyclists who don’t buy into the crap any longer is growing (http://ciudadciclista.org), and even the fact that Seville has been so extreme and reckless in following the segregationist madness is in some ways acting to our advantage: Seville has wanted to become an amazing example: some of our efforts are now directed at turning it into a horrible warning.
I also asked about crash statistics:
Regarding your question about crash stats: the situation in Seville is that of a complete information blackout. As far as I know, there is just no data publicly available. Just to give you an idea of how things are around here: over one year ago there was an article in the local press stating that “according to the conclusions of a study soon to be made public, the cycle lanes are safe for cyclists”. As you can guess, no study has been published since. Fun, uh?
The article, and the parody of it I wrote are here:
The contrast with Barcelona (one of the other, if less maddened, bikelaneist black holes in Spain) is stark: In Barcelona, a report is published yearly, and the news was for two years straight that the bicycle accidents were rising significantly, although it appears that they are lately down again (haven’t paid much attention to the issue).
http://www.adn.es/local/barcelona/20080110/NWS-1167-aumentaron-accidentes-bicicleta-barcelona.html [NWS-1167 — increas in bicycle crashes in Barcelona]
http://www.lavanguardia.es/vida/20090430/53693094057/los-accidentes-de-bici-son-los-unicos-que-aumentan-en-barcelona-en-2008.html [Bicycle crashes are the only kind that increase in numbers in Barcelona in 2008]
In two consecutive issues of the estimable Southwest Cycling News (print) publication, I have seen the picture below.
18 mph Albuquerque sign
Editor Fred Meredith shot the photo of the sign on a bicycle boulevard — a low-traffic, residential street configured as a through route for bicyclists — in Albuquerque, New Mexico while attending the 2010 League of American Bicyclists National Rally. Meredith wears more than one bicycle helmet — he also works under contract for the League’s education program, so it is natural for him to attend the National Rally.
Now, please don’t get me wrong, I’m an instructor in the League’s program, and I’m also a proponent of bicycle boulevards and of low speed limits on residential streets. Many European residential streets have a similar speed limit. and so do some streets in Montréal, Québec, in Canada — as per the sign on the left in the photo below.
Some signs in Montréal, Québec
Similar speed limit, what? That sign reads 30!
Yes, it does: 30 kilometers per hour. Canada changed its speed limit signs from miles to kilometers in 1977, conforming to the rest of the world, the only major holdout nations being the USA and the United Kingdom. Part of Canada is French-speaking, the kilometer is a French invention, and that might have something to do with Canada’s divergence from its southern neighbor.
So, anyway, American bicycling advocates on pilgrimages to Europe see the 30 km/hour signs, which look like a good idea to them, and decide to transplant the idea back home.
As I said, I support lower speed limits. I have a few problems with the sign, though.
First of all, our bicycling advocates appear to be math-challenged — or perhaps they want to go a bit lower on speed limits than the Europeans.
30 km per hour converts to 18.64 miles per hour, rounded to the nearest 1/100th. Rounded to the nearest whole number, then, it’s 19 miles per hour — not 18.
There’s another problem with the number 18 — or for that matter, 19. Have you ever before seen a speed limit in miles per hour with a final digit other than zero or 5 — or in kilometers, with anything other than zero? No, you haven’t. There are a couple of reasons. The steps in speed limits need to be large enough to be meaningful. Also, a zero and a 5 look so different that they are very unlikely to be confused with each other at a glance, or if a sign is damaged or partially obscured. An 8, on the other hand, is easily confused with a 3, or a zero. A 9 is easily confused with a 2 or a 7.
The speed limits displayed shall be in multiples of 5 mph.
Am I nitpicking by raising these issues? I don’t think so. Confusion makes a speed limit harder to observe, and harder to enforce. So do speeds which must be estimated, between the markings on a speedometer. Failure to observe standards exposes governments to liability risks. A nonstandard speed limit can give speeders and their lawyers a legal loophole.
The issue is similar to the one with bike lane color that I described in an earlier post.
The usual school-zone speed limit in the USA is 20 mph. It is only slightly higher than the European and Canadian 30 km/hour speed limit, and it conforms to US standards. This same 20 mph speed limit is already being used in residential neighborhoods in the USA. If 20 mph is too high, 15 also is possible, and I have seen it, in parking lots and the loading/unloading areas of airport terminals.
Advocates of an 18 mph speed limit are acting in disregard of existing American standards which would give them very nearly the same speed limit, on a sign that is more readable and immune to legal challenges.
When and if the USA goes over to speed limits in kilometers per hour, the current speed limits will be adjusted up or down slightly so the numbers end in a zero, as in other countries.
If the USA makes the conversion, a large number of “speed limit 30” signs will become available for re-use as 30 kilometers per hour, and the bicycling and neighborhood safety advocates can expect to have the genuine European speed limit at a bargain price. I will support them in that.
A chance meeting can lead to unexpected discoveries.
I met and spoke with Kurt Cibulski following a reading from a new book by its author, a mutual friend. I had arrived at the reading by bicycle; Kurt and I were talking bicycling. Kurt explained that he has a seizure disorder. The bright, rapidly-flashing LED headlights that bicyclists are increasingly using can initiate a seizure for him. “Who’d ‘a’ thunk it.” thought I.
Who? A proper, national standards-setting body, because someone, somewhere, would have brought the issue to its attention. On second thought, it’s obvious. Flashing lights are well-known to trigger seizures.
It’s also a truism that flashing lights draw attention. Many bicyclists ride in urban areas with overhead lighting, and don’t need a steady headlight beam to guide their way. But on the other hand…there’s the seizure problem.
Without careful standards setting, issues like this slip through the cracks. Designs get based on whim, commercial appeal, economies of production and avoidance of liability risk.
In the USA, individual cyclists are held responsible under state laws for using lights at night, but law enforcement is near-nonexistent, and many cyclists don’t use lights. The USA does have a Consumer Product Safety Commission, which, under pressure from the bicycle industry, has set standards — weak standards — only for retroreflectors on bicycles, never for lights. Retroreflectors only work for drivers whose headlights are pointed at them, and do not light up for the pedestrian stepping off the curb, the motorist in the cross street ahead, two bicyclists on a path approaching each other head-on. Bicycle manufacturers can point to Federal regulations and say that they are doing something for nighttime safety, while not being held responsible for these deficiencies.
This situation holds some ironies and unintended consequences beyond the obvious one that cyclists are being injured and killed for want of lights. The lack of standardization in the USA has given lighting manufacturers free rein to innovate, and has led to the availability of some very fine bicycle lighting systems. In the USA, when you see a cyclist with a light, you will probably see that cyclist from a good, long distance, because the light is a very good light.
In Germany, by way of contrast, lights are required on new bicycles. Manufacturer pressure comes to bear in a different way. To keep expense down, most lights only meet the letter of the law and are are less bright, and much less reliable, than the good ones sold in the USA. Bureaucratic inertia has compounded the problem: Germany requires bicycle lights to be powered by a generator. That made sense 40 years ago when battery lights were weak and battery replacement was expensive. Today’s efficient light-emitting diodes and high-capacity rechargeable batteries make battery lights economical and practical.
Generator lights also have improved, thanks to advances in technology and to discerning European cyclists’ demand for better lights that also meet the requirements of their laws — but a good generator lighting system can cost half as much as the bicycle on which it is installed.
A restrictive legal climate leads to this kind of market distortion; contrast this with the wider scope of innovation and slip-through-the-cracks issues in the US market.
I can’t help noticing that kiosk “bike share” (actually rental) bicycles that are becoming popular in American cities all are equipped with LED headlights and taillights, powered by a generator in the front hub. It only makes sense. The rental agencies have a more direct liability exposure than bicycle manufacturers who sell to individuals. But — the lights on the rental bicycles flash, because the generators produce alternating current and the output is not smoothed. Possibly also because flashing lights are popular and nobody though of the seizure-disorder issue.
Where are we heading with all this? I think that we’re approaching a political tipping point where regulations requiring lights on at least some kinds of new bicycles might be possible in the USA: both because of an increase in interest in utility cycling, and because improving technology had made bicycle lights much less expensive, more reliable and more compact. I mean, if little children can have flashing LEDs in the soles of their shoes, just to look cool, it isn’t much of a leap to think that every new utility bicycle could be equipped with lights.
But we also need to be smart, and look forward as technology improves, so regulations don’t box us in with outdated technology and inferior products, as in Germany.
Now, about those onions:
To give Kurt proper credit in this article, I asked his name and came up with another unexpected discovery. He spelled his name, and then volunteered, “Cibulski means ‘onion man’ in Polish. It’s a pan-European word.” Yes! Again, who’d ‘a’ thunk it? German, Zwiebel. Spanish, cibolla. I looked it up, and found variants in languages as diverse as Basque, Czech, Gaelic, Norwegian, Romanian…
I suppose that there’s another parallel, besides the two unexpected discoveries. Bicycle lighting issues, with all the political and technological complications, peel apart in layers like an onion, too.